Title: The Wonder
Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Anna O’Donnell claims—or rather her parents claim—that she hasn’t taken food since her eleventh birthday…She simply doesn’t eat.
You mean no solids?
No sustenance of any kind…but clear water.
When I first heard about Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, it reminded me of a book I read in college called, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, by Caroline Walker Bynum. In the Middle Ages there occurred a phenomenon among young girls whereby they took their devotion to the Eucharist to the extreme, refusing all food except for the Holy Host as their only sustenance. Most were discovered to be frauds, receiving food by some form and means, however there were instances of the miraculous, the inexplicable.
The wonder of this particular story set in 1859 Ireland, is Anna O’Donnell. She has been refusing food for four months, since her 11th birthday, taking nothing but a few teaspoons of water each day. She has attracted attention from people all over the world, who come to her poor home to commune and be blessed. But there are detractors as well calling the family cheats, only in it for the money left by the visitors or the notoriety. The matter has put the honor of both village and the whole of Ireland up for debate. In order to get to the truth several townsmen form a committee to investigate Anna and the claims of her family. They decide to mount a two week, 24-hour per day watch to see if food is coming to her in any covert way.
Lib Wright is an English nurse who trained under Florence Nightengale in the Crimea, having settled at a London hospital after the war. She is sent by her Matron to Ireland for a two week assignment as a private nurse, all expenses paid, but she is not told the nature of the work. We meet her as she travels to the assignment and as she passes rundown and derelict cottages, the poor people on the road who stare at her, it brings up all she thinks is wrong with this country, that the Irish are dirty, inhospitable and superstitious. When she meets Dr, McBrearty the doctor of the town to which she will staying and he describes what she will be doing, which is essentially “just watching” and not nursing she is incensed that her training will be wasted “on a child’s whim.”
Lib is sharing the watch with Sister Michael, a nun at the local convent. Anna O’Donnell is never to be left alone, for fear some family member might stash food somewhere where a quick grab into a pocket or hidden hole in the wall or floor might harbor a bit or two of food. What Lib cannot understand upon meeting the girl for the first time is how healthy and vibrant she is. Her training does not allow for what she is seeing: that after four months of fasting the girl is animated and clear minded and except for a few physical issues, healthy. Anna engages not only with her family and neighbors, but with all the world-wide visitors. To Lib, a lapsed Anglican with a scientific mind, though Anna seems very pious and prayerful and full the fairy superstition of the Irish, she is still of this world.
However, it only takes a few days of the watch before Anna begins to deteriorate rapidly. And this then becomes the mystery Lib tries to solve: not that Anna had been fasting all these months because she was obviously not, but how she was getting food and by whom. Lib comes to understand that the watch is preventing Anna from whatever method she had been able to eat and her rapid decline is frightening. She is torn between her duty of the assignment to “just watch” and her role as a nurse. Against the rules of her placement she begins to talk to Anna about eating trying to get her to see she will die, but it is of no use. Lib takes her concerns to Anna’s parents, Dr. McBrearty and the town priest, but all are enthralled at the sanctity of the situation and believe nature, that is God, should take its course.
William Byrne, a reporter from the Irish Times who has come to the town to do a story on Anna O’Donnell, has finally gotten a glimpse of the girl and is shocked at what he sees. He is furious that Lib is allowing this to happen, but he also understands the nature of the Church’s power and the family’s commitment to it. There is only one recourse to save Anna and that is…..a spoiler.
There is so much to this story and to the people who populate it. Of course, is the utter amazement that a mother and father would allow their child to starve to death and a doctor and priest that would do nothing to prevent it. Lib becomes devoted to Anna, but crosses the nurse/patient relationship when it is revealed she is estranged from her younger sister and the secret she hides about her husband. And then there is Anna herself whose refusal to eat is as much religious as it is product of an innocent heart when Lib discovers the horrible family secret that caused Anna to abstain from food in the first place.
This book reads like a detective novel as Lib investigates, observes and processes the evidence. And the writing style has both odd and beautiful turns of phrase that fascinate me. Although I thought the ending weak, because running away is a feeble way to end a story, I was utterly caught up in the totality of the narrative. So much so that I read The Wonder in one sitting, I could not put it down!
Challenges: Library Love, Reading All Around the World